Europe is Better For Some

The question was: In what ways is living in Europe better than living in America?

I’m not delusional. I am sure there are things about living in Europe that are better– or that I would consider better– than living in America. But my subjective list wouldn’t be the same as that guy’s subjective list. Because much of his list is based on statist lies.

  • you get six weeks paid holidays;

(The cost of which is going to come from somewhere, and it’s not out of the employer’s pocket. That’s just the economic reality. Yes, it is “paid”, and you are paying for it one way or another. Sorry to burst your bubble.)

  • you get universal healthcare;

(TANSTAAFL. He means “health care” paid for through theft, and rationed as bureaucrats see fit.)

  • you get a proper pension plan;

(“Proper” in whose eyes? Paid for by whom? Where is the trade-off… or does he deny there is one? Yes, a nice pension would be… nice. And maybe if the U.S. government in America hadn’t imposed “Social Security” they might be more widely available here.)

  • you can live in romantic, old cities that are 2.000 [sic] years old, in houses that are 500 years old, with modern conveniences;

(That sounds nice. Living far from any city sounds even better.)

  • weekend trips offer abundant, historical and romantic destinations at an amazing density; you could live somewhere for ten years and go somewhere new and interesting every weekend under an hour away;

(That has some appeal.)

  • no guns;

(He means a government monopoly on gun possession– a police state; not “no guns”.)

  • free schools;

(Theft-funded schools instead of education. Just like in America.)

  • free universities;

(Theft-funded universities.)

  • life and attitudes generally seem more gentle;

(Sheep usually do seem that way. As do the wolves– good and bad– who want to blend in with the sheep until they strike. Don’t confuse outward demeanor for a lack of inner fire.)

  • the variety is amazing – drive an hour, and you can be in a place with a different language, architecture, cuisine, and culture entirely.

(I’m guessing he didn’t travel around America very much before he moved to Europe.)

I guess if you want socialism and a police state where only the government is properly armed, Europe (excepting some of the more enlightened places) might be “better” for you. The whole world seems to be going down the socialism sewage pipe. If that’s your thing, go for it.

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Westminster: Bulldog, Not Poodle, for Best in Show

As of July 23,  members of the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party will have chosen a new leader. On July 24, Queen Elizabeth II will appoint a new prime minister,  almost certainly that new party leader. The two remaining contenders for those jobs are former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The elephant in the UK’s political room at the moment is, of course, Brexit. But another issue looms large as well, especially from across the Atlantic. That issue is foreign policy, particularly the UK’s tendency to throw in with US military interventions in the Middle East.

On July 16, when asked about the prospect of the UK joining the US in a war on Iran, Johnson responded bluntly while Hunt prevaricated.

Johnson: “If you ask me if I think, were I prime minister now, would I be supporting military action against Iran, the answer is ‘No.”‘

Hunt: “The risk we have is something different, which is an accidental war, because something happens in a very tense and volatile situation.”

On the one hand, it’s naive to take any politician at his word, especially when that politician is lobbying for election to public office or a party leadership position. On the other, a seemingly straight answer is probably a more reliable indicator than a transparent dodge.

Johnson gave that seemingly straight answer — the answer of a bulldog relentlessly focused on his country’s interests rather than on maintaining  its “special relationship” with the United States.

Hunt’s answer, unfortunately, immediately brought to mind former PM Tony Blair’s unconvincing denial of accusations that he was US president George W. Bush’s “poodle” in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

“I choose my own way …” Blair insisted. “[T]hat region of the world — most of all the people of Iraq — would be in a far better position without Saddam Hussein.  Does that mean that military action is imminent or about to happen? No. We’ve never said that. We have said ‘Here is an issue. It has to be dealt with. We will deal with it, but how we’ll deal with it is an open question.’”

Blair ended up committing the UK to what turned out to be a ruinous project for pretty much everyone involved. An official inquiry into the fiasco, conducted by Sir John Chilcot, resulted in a 2016 report accurately characterized by The Guardian‘s Richard Norton-Taylor as “an unprecedented, devastating indictment of how a prime minister was allowed to make decisions by discarding all pretence at cabinet government, subverting the intelligence agencies, and making exaggerated claims about threats to Britain’s national security.”

Johnson’s seemingly firm position is no guarantee that as prime minister he would wisely refrain from joining in future US military adventures.

Hunt’s decision to muddy the waters is virtually a guarantee that, like Blair, he would prioritize maintaining the “special relationship,” no matter the cost in blood and treasure to the United Kingdom, and no matter the damage to the cause of world peace.

Choose wisely, Tories. It matters.

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Reflections from Spain

I just got back from a five-week visit to Spain.  The first four weeks, I was teaching labor economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín while my sons took Spanish-language classes on Islamism, Self-Government, and the Philosophy of Hayek.  Then we rented a van and saw Cordoba, Seville, Gibraltar, Fuengirola, Granada, and Cuenca.  During my stay, I also spoke to the Instituto von Mises in Barcelona, Effective Altruism Madrid, the Rafael del Pino Foundation, and the Juan de Mariana Institute.  I had ample time to share ideas with UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián, UFM professor Eduardo Fernández, Juan Pina and Roxana Niculu of the Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad, and my Facebook friend Scott McLain.  Using my sons as interpreters, I also conversed with about 25 Uber drivers.  Hardly a scientific sample, but here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Overall, Spain was richer and more functional than I expected.  The grocery stores are very well-stocked; the worst grocery store I saw in Spain offered higher quality, more variety, and lower prices than the best grocery store I saw in Denmark, Sweden, or Norway.  Restaurants are cheap, even in the tourist areas.  Almost all workers I encountered did their jobs with a friendly and professional attitude.  There is near-zero violent crime, though many locals warned us about pickpockets.

2. The biggest surprise was the low level of English knowledge of the population.  Even in tourist areas, most people spoke virtually no English.  Without my sons, I would have been reduced to pantomiming (or Google translate) many times a day.  Movie theaters were nevertheless full of undubbed Hollywood movies, and signs in (broken) English were omnipresent.

3. I wasn’t surprised by the high level of immigration, but I was shocked by its distribution.  While there are many migrants from Spanish America, no single country has sent more than 15% of Spain’s migrantsThe biggest source country, to my surprise, is Romania; my wife chatted with fellow Romanians on a near-daily basis.  I was puzzled until a Romanian Uber driver told me that a Romanian can attain near-fluent Spanish in 3-4 months.  Morocco comes in at #2, but Muslims are less visible in Madrid than in any other European capital I’ve visited.

4. 75% of our Uber drivers were immigrants, so we heard many tales of the immigrant experience.  Romanians aside, we had drivers from Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Pakistan.  Even the Pakistanis seemed highly assimilated and almost overjoyed to reside in Spain.  By the way, Uber in Spain works even better than in the U.S.  The median wait time was 3 minutes, and the prices were about one-third less than in the U.S.

5. Refugees from Chavismo were prominent and vocal.  One Venezuelan Uber driver was vocally pro-Trump.  You might credit Trump’s opposition to Maduro, but the driver said she liked him because “He doesn’t talk like a regular politician.”  I wanted to ask, “Couldn’t you say the same about Chavez and Maduro?!” but I was in listening mode.

6. I’ve long been dumbfounded by Spain’s high unemployment rate, which peaked at around 27% during the Great Recession and currently stands at about 15%.  Could labor market regulation really be so much worse in Spain than in France or Italy?  My chats with local economists – and observation of the labor market – confirmed my skepticism.  According to these sources, a lot of officially “unemployed” workers are lying to collect unemployment insurance while they work in the black market.  Immigrants reported little trouble finding work, though they did gravitate toward “New Economy” jobs like Uber driving.  I still think that Spanish unemployment is a tragic problem, especially for the young.  Yet properly measured, finding a job in Spain is plausibly easier than finding a job in France or Italy.  (This obviously raises the question, “To what extent is unemployment in France and Italy inflated in the same way?”  If you know of good sources, please share in the comments).

7. If I didn’t know the history of the Spanish Civil War, I never would have guessed that Spain ever had a militant labor movement.  Tipping was even rarer than in France, but sincere devotion to customer service seems higher than in the U.S.  Perhaps my sons charmed them with their high-brow Spanish, but I doubt that explains more than a small share of what I saw.  A rental car worker apologized for charging me for returning my car with a 95% full tank, adding, “Sorry, but my boss will yell at me if I don’t.”

8. Catalan independence is a weighty issue for both Barcelona and Madrid libertarians.  Madrid libertarians say that an independent Catalonia would be very socialist; Barcelona libertarians say the opposite.  I found the madrileños slightly more compelling here, but thought both groups were wasting time on this distraction.  Libertarians around the world should downplay identity and focus on the policy trinity of deregulating immigration, employment, and housing.  (Plus austerity, of course).

9. UFM Madrid Director Gonzalo Melián was originally an architect.  We discussed Spanish housing regulation at length, and I walked away thinking that Spain is strangling construction about as severely as the U.S. does.

10. Spanish housing regulation is especially crazy, however, because the country is unbelievably empty.  You can see vast unused lands even ten miles from Madrid.  The train trip to Barcelona passes through hundreds of miles of desert.  Yes, the U.S. has even lower population density, but Spain is empty even in regions where many millions of people would plausibly like to live.

11. The quickest way to explain Spain to an American: Spain is the California of Europe.  I grew up in Los Angeles, and often found myself looking around and thinking, “This could easily be California.”  The parallel is most obvious for geography – the deserts, the mountains, the coasts.  But it’s also true architecturally; the typical building in Madrid looks like it was built in California in 1975.  And at least in summer, the climates of Spain and California match closely.  Spain’s left-wing politics would also resonate with Californians, but Spain doesn’t seem so leftist by European standards.  Indeed, Spaniards often told me that their parents remain staunch Franco supporters.

12. My biggest epiphany: Spain has more to gain from immigration than virtually any other country on Earth.  There are almost 500 million native Spanish speakers on Earth – and only 47 million people in Spain.  (Never mind all those non-Spanish speakers who can acquire fluency in less than a year!)  Nearly all of these Spanish speakers live in countries that are markedly poorer and more dangerous than Spain, so vast numbers would love to migrate.  And due to the low linguistic and cultural barriers, the migrants are ready to hit the ground running.  You can already see migration-fueled growth all over Spain, but that’s only a small fraction of Spain’s potential.

13. Won’t these migrants vote to ruin Spain?  I don’t see the slightest hint of this.  Migrants come to work, not to change Spain.  And it’s far from clear that natives’ political views are better than migrants’.  Podemos, the left-wing populist party, doesn’t particularly appeal to immigrant voters.  Vox, the right-wing populist party, seems to want more immigration from Spanish America, though they naturally want to slash Muslim immigration.

14. How can immigration to Spain be such a free lunch?  Simple: Expanding a well-functioning economy is far easier than fixing a poorly-functioning economy. The Romanian economy, for example, has low productivity.  Romanian people, however, produce far more in Spain than at home.  Give them four months to learn the language, and they’re ready to roll.

15. According to my sources, Spain’s immigration laws willfully defy this economic logic.  When illegal migrants register with the government, they immediately become eligible for many government benefits.  Before migrants can legally work, however, they must wait three years.  Unsurprisingly, then, you see many people who look like illegal immigrants working informally on the streets, peddling bottled water, sunglasses, purses, and the like.  I met one family that was sponsoring Venezuelan refugees.  Without their sponsorship, the refugees would basically be held as prisoners in a government camp – or even get deported to Venezuela.  Why not flip these policies, so migrants can work immediately, but wait three years to become eligible for government benefits?  Who really thinks that people have a right to the labor of others, but no right to labor themselves?

16. Our favorite day was actually spent in Gibraltar.  Highly recommended; you simply cannot overrate the apes.  I was astounded to learn that the border with Spain was totally closed until 1982, and only normalized in 1985.  In a rare triumph of the self-interested voter hypothesis, 96% of Gibraltarians voted against Brexit.  Crossing the border is already kind of a pain; pedestrians have to go through (cursory) Spanish and British passport checks both ways, and the car line is supposed to take an hour.  I’d hate to be living in Gibraltar if security gets any tighter.

17. Big question: Why is Spain so much richer now than almost any country in Spanish America?  Before you answer with great confidence, ponder this: According to Angus Maddison’s data on per-capita GDP in 1950, Spain was poorer than Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and roughly equal to Colombia, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Panama.  This is 11 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and Spain of course stayed out of World War II.

18. Related observation: Once you’ve seen Spain, the idea that underdevelopment and oppression are somehow “intrinsic to Islam” is ridiculous.  The monuments of eight centuries of Muslim civilization in Spain are all around you.  So are basic facts like: Muslim Cordoba was once the largest city in Europe – and plausibly the most tolerant as well.  While bad outcomes are somewhat persistent, dramatic turnarounds are also common.

19. Another example: In less than a century, Spain has gone from being a battleground between reactionary Catholicism and violent atheism to a land of extreme religious apathy.  Non-practicing Catholics now outnumber practicing Catholics 2:1.

20. After I visit a new country, Tyler Cowen always asks me, “Are you long or short?”  In terms of potential, I’m very long on Spain.  The trinity of “deregulate immigration, employment, and housing” is vital in almost every country, but this formula would do more for Spain than nearly any other country.  Wise policy would make Spain the biggest economy in Europe in twenty years flat.  Unfortunately, these policies are highly unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, so my actual forecast is only moderately positive.  At this point, I can picture Tyler aphorizing, “The very fact that a country has massive unrealized potential is a reason to be pessimistic about its future.”  But this goes too far.  All else equal, a higher upper bound is clearly a reason for optimism – and by European standards, the Spanish economy is now doing very well.

21. Overall, my visit has made me more optimistic about Spain.  Much of the measured unemployment is illusory, and immigrants are pouring in to profit from Spain’s combination of high productivity and linguistic accessibility.  Housing policy remains bad.  Since housing regulation is decentralized, however, some regions of Spain will be atypically tolerant of new construction.  Where is the Texas of Spain?  I don’t know, but that’s where the future is.

Correction: I originally stated that Spain had lower population density than the contiguous U.S., but I was mixing up population per square mile and population per square kilometer.

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Statists Want You to Believe You’re Stupid

Statists want you to believe you aren’t smart enough to know how to solve problems. They say you have to trust the president or congress or the city council to do what’s necessary because you can’t possibly understand the issues. You don’t see “The Big Picture”* and don’t understand “how these things work”.

How convenient for them.

Erich Fromm had something to say about this vulgar lie:

“One kind of smokescreen is that the problems are too complicated for the average individual to grasp. On the contrary it would seem that many of the basic issues of individual and social life are very simple, so simple. in fact, that everyone should be expected to understand them. To let them appear to be so enormously complicated that only a “specialist” can understand them, and he only in his limited field, actually– and often intentionally– tends to discourage people from trusting their own capacity to think about those problems that really matter. The individual feels hopelessly caught in a chaotic mass of data and with pathetic patience waits until the specialists have found out what to do and where to go.” — Escape from Freedom

I see statists use this tactic all the time.

  • You can’t understand why it’s not a good idea to get rid of all anti-gun “laws” because you don’t have the wisdom and experience of the police unions, the BATFEces, the FBI, or federal judges. It’s simplistic to believe you can be responsible for yourself and that an armed populace would deter archation.
  • You can’t understand the nuances of “border security” because you aren’t an expert. You can’t just respect all property rights (including ending all welfare) and respect the right of defense– it would be chaos.
  • You’re not a scientist so you can’t understand the data pointing to Climate Change. Trust the experts to tell you what you’ll have to do to avoid this disaster they say is coming.

Statists need to make you believe the world is too complicated for individuals to understand. Otherwise, you might realize you don’t need their god to save you. So they constantly order you to “leave it to the professionals who know best“. They constantly insult you and your intelligence. They get paternalistic and condescending as they assure you “government knows best”.

Don’t be so uppity as to notice that their “professionals” and “experts” are always on the side of violating YOUR natural human rights and imposing more control over YOUR life.

Yeah, the world is complex. But if the average human can’t understand it, clumping sub-average humans together in a gang you call “government” isn’t going to magically give them superhuman abilities. Quite the opposite. I’ll trust the spontaneous order arising from the self-interested actions of free individuals before I trust the “wisdom” of monopolistic government being imposed on everyone.

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*I once worked for a business that I saw doing really dumb, self-destructive things on orders from the manager. Being a good employee who wanted to see the business thrive, I told this manager what I thought and his standard response was that I didn’t see “The Big Picture” that only he could see.

I swear I didn’t say “I told you so” every time the things I warned him of came to pass.

But I sure did think it a lot.

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The TSA and Security Theater: Understanding American Airport Security Following 9/11

Following the attacks of September 11th, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), creating the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). The TSA replaced private security screening companies with one government agency. Since then, air travelers have bowed to pat downs, bans on water bottles and other inconvenient, intrusive procedures as the “new normal” at our nation’s airports. But does any of this make us safer?

Security Theater and the TSA

Security expert Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to describe some of the TSA’s procedures and screening practices. Security theater provides the appearance of enhanced security without actually making anyone more secure.

Since 9/11, the TSA has implemented new screening procedures on an almost constant basis. The structural problem with these new screening procedures is two-fold. First, these procedures are almost always in response to past threats, not in anticipation of future threats. Second, average Americans suffer the consequences for years to come in the form of ever-increasing screening procedures and lost time.

Sadly, the TSA’s accumulated procedures and screening practices are actually causing more American deaths. Cornell University researchers found decreased air travel after 9/11 led to an extra 242 road fatalities per month. In all, the researchers estimate that 1,200 people died as a result of decreased air travel. In 2007, the Cornell researchers studied TSA screening procedures implemented in 2002, and found that they decreased air travel by 6% – leading to an additional 129 road fatalities in the last three months of 2002. In terms of casualties, that’s the same as blowing up a fully loaded Boeing 737.

Continue reading The TSA and Security Theater: Understanding American Airport Security Following 9/11 at Ammo.com.

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Did Jeffrey Epstein “Belong to Intelligence?”

In 2008, billionaire asset manager Jeffrey Epstein’s lawyers negotiated a very favorable plea bargain in Florida, under which he served a mere 13 months in jail — in his own private wing, with 12 hours of daily “work release” — on a single charge of soliciting prostitution from a minor (the FBI had identified 40 alleged victims of sexual predation on his part).

Epstein’s in jail again, this time in New York, on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. Again, prosecutors allege at least 40 victims.

A prospective 41st casualty of the case, perhaps not an undeserving one, is Alexander Acosta. As US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Acosta negotiated that sweetheart 2008 plea agreement. Now he faces calls for his resignation as US Secretary of Labor.

How did the plea agreement come about? For an easy explanation,  look to a (supposed) exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s:

Fitzgerald: The rich are different from you and me.
Hemingway: Yes, they have more money.

More money buys more formidable lawyers (in Epstein’s case, Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr). More money usually means friends with more money, and with the influence that goes with having more money. It’s just a fact of life that more money sometimes means getting away with — or at least getting off easier for — things would put you or me in jail for a long, long time.

But another possibility rears its ugly head. In an article for The Daily Beast, investigative journalist Vicky Ward quotes a former senior White House official, in turn quoting Acosta’s response to questions about Epstein during his interview with President Donald Trump’s transition team:

“I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone.”

Yes, we’re getting that quote at third hand. Unfortunately, yes, it sounds plausible.

Suppose you were a wealthy and influential man with wealthy and influential friends — not just celebrities, but business moguls and politicians — from around the globe.

Suppose you held wild sex parties on your private island and invited those wealthy and influential friends, even ferrying some of them to the island on your personal Boeing 727 airliner.

Suppose those wild sex parties included the presence, voluntary or coerced, of  young (perhaps illegally so) women.

That’s pretty good extortion material, isn’t it?

Now suppose a government intelligence agency offered to protect you from prosecution for your escapades — perhaps by leaning on a federal prosecutor to make the matter go away with minimal punishment —  in return for that extortion material?

Is that how things happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But if so, it would be far from the first time that innocent men, women and children have been sacrificed to the false idol of “national security.”

Since World War Two, the United States has built itself into a “national security state” which recognizes no ethical or legal constraints. It’s doesn’t exist to protect the American public. It exists to protect itself. And, too often, it protects the predators among us.

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